Juneteenth is a holiday without a purpose in Cleveland: Justice B. Hill

CLEVELAND, Ohio — I have no notion of what Juneteenth traditions Clevelanders will celebrate next week for this newest national holiday. The date holds no real significance for people who grew up in Northeast Ohio, and until, oh, 15 years ago, I didn’ t understand why friends in Texas howled about Juneteenth.

Well, they knew what the date meant. I didn’t.

Not that Juneteenth didn’t have a spot on the historical calendar of our republic. It was, after all, the 1865 date in which slaves in renegade Texas discovered they had been emancipated.

News in the mid-1800s moved at a sloth’s pace, and the reluctant way in which slavery was disassembled everywhere told me that one state would be the last to free my ancestors from bondage. Texas was that state.

Unlike in Ohio, Black folk there have long held June 19 in some regard, even if it doesn’t resonate with a slogan that rivals “Remember the Alamo.” Texans celebrate both.

I wonder whether we, Ohioans, should bother with either. I’m more than a skeptic of Juneteenth as a national holiday because of how it happened.

A year ago, Congress heeded a cry of almost no one when it anointed “Juneteenth” as a federal holiday. The House voted 415-to-14. The Senate did better; it had not a single “no” vote.

Republicans and Democrats can’t agree on healthcare for all, on taxing the superrich or on covid protocols. They parse their words when discussing what a riot looks like versus an insurrection. Like 11-year-olds, they name-call when it comes to finding ways to take guns away from lawbreakers.

Issues like climate change languish in legislative purgatory, and consensus in Congress comes when you get one legislator from the other party to side with his opposition.

Consensus on Capitol Hill sounds grand, though. The reality of it, however, resembles an Aesop fable, which is why I muse about the vote to make Juneteenth a national holiday.

Sandwiched between Memorial Day and the Fourth of July, Juneteenth looks like a holiday without purpose. Several major companies have struggled to figure out what to do with it, how to give the holiday its due. Can smaller companies be asked to free their workers to take this day off?

I can’t see how white people will ever embrace Juneteenth, which will need to happen if the holiday is to gain genuine acceptance.

They might get around to it once “Juneteenthers” lay out their claim for what this holiday should be, but spotlighting the final state to end slavery appears a triviality.

Is it a solemn occasion like Memorial Day or does Juneteenth play to circumstances and pomp like the Fourth does?

We’ll find out soon enough.

I wish I could get excited about its prospects. I can’t. I feel about Juneteenth the same way I do about Chinese New Year, which nobody has taken steps to turn into a national holiday.

Yet some have baked that day into their lives, and maybe they’ll do likewise with Juneteenth.

I doubt it.

I see Juneteenth as a national holiday looking for a reason to exist. From where I sit, it has none, and Congress did nothing, particularly in these partisan times, to make Clevelanders yell, not yawn, about a holiday most of them did not ask for and do not understand.

Justice B. Hill grew up on the city’s East Side. He practiced journalism for more than 25 years before settling into teaching at Ohio University. He quit May 15, 2019, to write and globetrot. He’s doing both.

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